BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Team USA forward Jack Hughes saved his best for last. And his best has left a lasting impression.
Hughes, the projected No. 1 selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, had two assists in 12:52 of ice time and was named Team USA’s player of the game in a 4-2 loss against Russia in the quarterfinal of the 2019 IIHF World Championship at Ondrej Nepela Arena in Bratislava on Thursday.
The newly turned 18-year-old was a scratch a game prior.
“I feel like I played well tonight,” said Hughes, who wraps the tournament with three points, all assists, in seven games. “Obviously the outcome wasn’t the one we wanted.
“I think I just got more opportunity tonight. I probably played the most since I’ve been here.
“It was a good game for me personally.”
Hughes entered the game with one point in his prior six skates.
“He was a star tonight,” said Team USA coach Jeff Blashill, whose full-time gig lies behind the bench with the Detroit Red Wings. “He was a superstar tonight. I thought he made tons of plays, created against some of the very best players in the world.”
“Their forwards are as good as any forwards in the world, and I thought he was a superstar. It says a lot about him. Obviously, he was disappointed sitting out.”
“All he did was dig in and show everybody, including myself, what a high-level player he is.”
Blashill wasn’t alone in the praise.
“I thought he played great,” said Patrick Kane, himself the No. 1 pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL Draft. “He really pushed the pace and had a lot of speed to his game, made some nice plays on the goal to (Noah) Hanifin…he made a nice play to me on (Alex) DeBrincat’s goal.”
“You can see the talent level.”
“I think it’s a tough situation. He’s a young guy, he’s coming in and he’s really not playing the minutes he’s accustomed to and he has to be good every shift or those minutes kind of fade away. It seemed like when he got on the ice tonight he really took advantage of the time he was out there.”
The loss capped a busy season for Hughes, the youngest player at the World Championship and the youngest player ever for Team USA at the tournament.
He played 50 games for the National Team Development Program Under-18 team and represented Team USA at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver over the latter part of December and early January, and 2019 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Sweden in April before suiting up one final time at the World Championship in Kosice and Bratislava.
All that’s left for him is draft day in Vancouver in June.
He can relax, at least, until then.
“I definitely won’t be on my skates, really,” said Hughes, who turned 18 on May 14. “I haven’t had a break all year, so I’ll probably just hang out and chill.”
It’s a rest well earned.
Hughes, a centre, set NTDP records for assists (154) and points (228) in 110 games in his two seasons with the club, and surpassed Alex Ovechkin’s point record at the World Under-18s with 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) in 14 games over tournaments in 2018 and 2019.
Hughes’ haul also includes bronze for the Under-18 and silver from the World Juniors.
Hughes’ last experience, though ending without any hardware, will prove to be most rewarding.
It’ll have him better prepared for what lies ahead, he suggested.
“It was a good couple of weeks for our teams and it was good for me to be a part of,” said Hughes, whose seasonal efforts have him slotted No. 1 among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s ranking for the 2019 draft, and first overall in Elite Prospects’ Top 93 Skaters ranking in April.
“The guys were great. Whenever you get the chance to play for Team USA it’s great. Obviously not the outcome we wanted, but I think there was a good learning process for me.
“I learned a lot of things. A lot of things I can work on this summer on the ice, and off the ice, I learned a lot of things too.
“I’ll for sure digest it once I get back to the States and kind of figure out what was good and bad from this tournament.”